Grandma, 81, running for election is a walking ad for active ageing – and win or lose, Astrid Heiberg plans to stay busy

Use your brain if you want a long life, Hong Kong audience heard from doctor who was first woman president of the International Committee of the Red Cross and who champions age-friendly policies in retirement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 8:02am

Astrid Noklebye Heiberg is not your average grandma. At the age of 81, she is the oldest candidate to run for Parliament in Norway, where a general election will be held in September. And it looks like nothing will stop her, not even cancer.

When we meet in June at the Knowledge of Design Week – a conference held by the Hong Kong Design Centre where she spoke on the topic “More Years More Opportunities” – she has just finished chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, the only sign of which was the scarf she wore on her head.

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A senior political adviser to the incumbent Conservative Party of Norway, Heiberg recently helped the government draft a “grey paper” – a comprehensive strategy for building an age-friendly society. It covers areas such as how long people should be able to work, making transport systems more accessible, and how innovation can enable active ageing.

“The challenge is we have ageing populations all over the world but people haven’t adjusted to it. People still live in the age of the industrial revolution. We believe people are robotic in their ways and minds so that, when we get older, we are in a sense broken. We are rusted and need to be discarded,” says Heiberg. “People haven’t really grasped the idea that humanity is much more than that.”

While Norway has been consistently ranked as the best country in the world to grow old in, Heiberg believes its government still has a lot to do. One of these is to remove the upper age limit for employment, currently set at 80.

“Why have an [age] limit? It’s not your age that counts. It’s your knowledge and your experience,” says Heiberg. She cites her husband Arvid Heiberg, a geneticist who studies Huntington’s disease, to emphasise her point. Huntington’s disease is a genetic brain disorder which has symptoms such as loss of cognitive function.

“He knows each and every family in Norway with the disease. He has more knowledge about these families than everybody else. It is also something he’s sharing with other countries in the world when they are collecting data on this disease. If you have a more long-term observation possibility, they can use the expertise,” says Heiberg.

I was very good at getting the toothpaste into the tube, but I decided then I will never ever in my life do something that doesn’t take into account who I am
Astrid Heiberg

While Arvid Heiberg still has his medical licence, he can only practise medicine until December this year, when he will turn 80, unless his application for an exemption to continue practising is granted.

Herself a psychiatrist, Heiberg faced the same problem several years ago, when the age limit for employment was set at 72. Some of her patients came to her, concerned they might no longer be able to see her when she retired. Heiberg found a way around the age limit.

“I told them, ‘Instead of being your psychiatrist, I can be your life coach.’ I can still listen to them and speak to them,” says Heiberg.

So how does one stay sharp and healthy as one grows old? Heiberg stands by the advice she gave to her audience in Hong Kong. “By [saying ] ‘use your brain’, I don’t mean filling crossword puzzles, but really training the brain to do something you are not good at. Challenge yourself,” says Heiberg.

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She attributes her drive to a personality trait she has had since a very young age. “I’m hopelessly curious,” she says. Born into a family of engineers, as a teenager Heiberg had hoped to become one herself. However, working on an assembly line in a toothpaste factory – a mandatory requirement for admission to a university’s school of engineering – changed her mind.

“I was very good at getting the toothpaste into the tube, but I decided then I will never ever in my life do something that doesn’t take into account who I am. I am just a bit and a piece in the machine and that is not going to be my future,” she says.

Instead, she went to medical school and studied psychiatry as well as psychotherapy. Her career took a turn in the 1980s when she dived into politics and became the deputy minister of health and social affairs.

With her success in politics, she was elected president of the Red Cross in Norway and of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in the 1990s – the first woman to hold either position.

“When I needed help or guidance I could call the secretary general of the United Nations, and I did. It was on that level,” says Heiberg, whose work at the Red Cross earned her the prestigious Henry Dunant medal for outstanding humanitarian service in 2011.

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“I’ve seen at least half of the countries in the world and it has been an enormously rewarding experience, especially to see how many so-called ordinary people are not ordinary at all, but have a special ability to care. It’s what makes you believe in the goodness of people,” she says.

For Heiberg to win a seat in Parliament, the Conservative Party will have to have a great election; she is ranked a long way down its list of candidates. But whether she wins or not, she has no regrets about her rich and colourful life.

“I have been extremely lucky so I really have no need to claim 10 more years,” says Heiberg. “But I would like to have some.”